Zuko sat awake listening to his teammates sleep. They had fled the Western Air Temple after Azula but her attack had given them all a scare, so they decided to appoint a guard to watch over at night. The benders had coordinated their training schedules with Aang, who was excused from guard duties on account of being the Avatar. Since Zuko was on watch tonight, Aang would work on waterbending in the morning and earthbending in the afternoon, giving Zuko a chance to catch up on his sleep.
Even though teamwork was something relatively new to Zuko, he was trying really hard to be a team player, especially with Katara still refusing to trust him, so he took his guard duty without complaint, even though he didn’t find it completely fair.
Nights were hard for firebenders and Zuko harbored a little bit of resentment for Katara, who was the mastermind behind the “staying up all night” idea. For Toph and Sokka it was pretty neutral, but Zuko couldn’t help but feel like Katara got off easier than him when it came to guard duty.
She was a waterbender, when she was on guard duty she was at her strongest, fueled by the moon, and when it was her turn to catch up on her sleep during the day, it was no problem for her. She was used to sleeping with the lights on; the South Pole was known as the land of the midnight sun.
But for Zuko, it was harder. He drew his power from the sun. How was he expected to fight at full capacity in the middle of the night? And when he did get to go to bed after a long night of guarding, the sun was out, it’s energy buzzing through his veins and making sleep difficult no matter how tired he was.
He didn’t like it, but his diplomatic mind was well aware that he was in no position to complain, so he kept his mouth shut, even as sleep was threatening to take him in the middle of his shift.
Normally on guard duty, he would swivel his head slightly to compensate for his vulnerable blind side, but he was just too tired. He couldn’t help it that his body stilled and his head drooped. He made sure to keep his eyes open, but that didn’t do anything for 50% of his sight. The bandits noticed this.
They had been staking out the camp since the sun had gone down, and had been watching Zuko from their hiding place as long as he had been out there. They had been sizing him up. They would have to gag him first, before he got a chance to yell a warning to the others. Seeing the swords on his back told them that his hands would be next, and his feet would be last. He was a scrawny kid and they feared a strike from his sword far more than a kick.
They also noticed his scar, and how he had looked around like he couldn’t see out of his left eye. They saw how he stopped looking around as he got tired, and took their shot.
The one who was designated to restrain Zuko crept up silently on his blind side. She stood behind him, gag at the ready, and looped it across Zuko’s face before he could register what was happening. Zuko jerked awake and tried to yell, reaching for his swords, but his hands were already bound behind his back and his shoelaces were being tied together. He grunted and struggled, but the surly bandit stunned him by clocking him a good one across the head with a club and then ran off to loot the camp with her companions.
Zuko didn’t know how long he laid there, head pounding, ears ringing, vision swimming, but it couldn’t have been more than a couple of minutes. When he finally came back to himself, he burned through his wrist restraints and undid his gag and bootlaces. He wasted no time getting to his feet and rushing into the fray.
He must not have been out that long, because the gaang was just starting to fight back when he joined. The trio of bandits was no match for the group, and the addition of the team firebender pushed the scales even further in their favor. Team Avatar was quickly able to drive off the bandits with only minor injuries (including burned rings around Zuko’s wrist where he’d escaped his bondage) and no major losses.
The group grumbled and asked questions and recovered from battle for a few moments before Katara turned to Zuko. “How could you let them attack us like that?! You were on guard, you should’ve stopped them!” She scolded. Zuko was taken aback. “You’re mad at me?! They snuck up on me, they gagged me, they took advantage of me, they tied me up! I had to burn myself just to get out of their ropes!” He showed Katara his seared wrists. “Not to mention that butch lady knocked me across the head with a club! I did damn well enough!” He yelled. Normally he would never stand up to Katara like this, but he was emboldened by the adrenaline from battle and the indignation of being blamed for it.
He knew not to fight with Katara, because she never backed down, but the words were already out of his mouth and now he had to deal with the consequences. “If you did enough, they never would’ve attacked us in the first place!” She snapped.
“I did all I could!” Zuko retorted.
“Clearly not! Why didn’t you see them sneak up on you? Were you sleeping on the job? This is exactly what I’m talking about when I say I don’t trust you!”
That was the wrong thing to say to Zuko. He almost never let his scar, his trauma, or his blindness be a factor for him or anyone around him, but the blatant disrespect Katara was showing him when he was trying so hard to earn her trust made the angry flame inside him burn brighter than it had since Ba Sing Se.
“You really wanna know, Katara?! The reason I didn’t see them is because I can’t see anything out of this eye! Even if I really want to! Even if I really try! My eye just doesn’t work! But you’re right. Being blind in one eye absolutely proves my disloyalty! I’m not being sarcastic, either. This scar represents disrespect and disloyalty; to the Fire Nation! You make a lot of assumptions for someone who knows absolutely nothing about what’s happened to me, you know that?! You don’t know how I got this scar, you don’t know why I was banished, and you don’t get to decide who I am without knowing those things! I get it, I’ve done a lot of bad things to you, you’re allowed to hate me, and you’re allowed to be mad that we were attacked, but you are not allowed to blame me for the attack just because you hate me! I fought just as hard as you to drive them away and how dare you question my loyalty because of my disability!”
He was steaming by the end of his monologue and the rest of the group stared at him in shocked silence. Eventually, Katara tried to speak. “Zuko, I-“
“Keep it to yourself!” He snapped, and he marched off, his anger burning a hole in his heart.